Haa Dzongrab Jamba Tsheten, takes a historical look at how fire has ravaged our important heritage sites and suggests
some practical and workable solutions to prevent such further disasters
Our country is endowed with a very rich cultural diversity handed down our forefathers. This heritage is losing its battle to endure in this modern period. The preservation of cultural heritage is the third pillar of the developmental philosophy of the country. But when there are natural and man-made forces, our third pillar, is not able to withstand their might. That is why in the last century, this nation’s heritage has been a victim of one of the major calamities which is fire. As a result, the originality of the structure and the sanctity of many Lhakhangs and even Dzongs are losing today although the government has rebuilt them to its original structure.
In the olden days, the people put forth relentless effort to guard their ancestral lhakhangs and fortress with much care and love. Due to such great care, fire disasters were rare and there was no complete destruction like today. They believed it was their duty to secure and prevent man-made disasters. But, today the mentality has changed drastically, the people tend to bother less about such sites.
Lhakhangs and Dzongs are sanctified by renowned Buddhist masters where the concept of peace and stability was incepted. By burning those sacred religious structures, we are trying to defeat security and happiness within ourselves. Within decades, many revered and holy structures that were burnt down were due man-made disasters.
For instance, in 1954 Drukgyal Dzong was almost completely destroyed by fire. Oral sources, sat the fire was caused by the resin used to light the room in olden days. This was from the room of Kangjup of one of the temples. With this simple mistake, the whole structure was razed to ground. Even today the reminder of that negligence is clearly visible.
On April 19, 1998, a fire gutted the 7th century Taktsang Monastery and destroyed it completely within a day. It is believed to have been caused by an electrical short circuit in the main building of the monastery which contained valuable paintings, artifacts and statues. Although the government investigated the fire disaster, there was no clear outcome as to what caused the fire.
In 1998, the caretaker’s room in Kurje Lhakhang was burnt due to the sheer negligence of the caretaker. Later the fire was contained by local residents and the monks. It was speculated that the fire started from the rod heater used for drying religious scriptures or books.
Similarly in 2002, the one half of the Rabdey in Pemagatshel Dzong caught fire. This was also from an electric rod heater left unattended by the monk who went to perform rituals at another place. The fire was further fueled by the LPG cylinder nearby. Fortunately, the partition design of the Drasha was in Tibetan style which prevented further damage and the calm weather helped contain the fire.
Sometime in 2004 the main part of the Dagar Trashiyangtse Dzong was burnt by a fire. Although the main source of fire was unknown, the probable cause was electrical short circuit.
Gasa Dzong was threatened by a fire that broke out on January 28, 2008. The blaze was contained with support from officials and volunteers. Initially it was believed that the cause of the fire was electrical short circuit but after the investigation the cause was confirmed to be from electrical appliances.
In the afternoon of February, 2010 Kencho Sum lhakhang was completely destroyed by a fire. Historically and culturally this caused great loss to the Bhutanese. This 7th century temple endured many natural disasters in the past, only to blaze in flames in this modern time. Today, the temple remains gutted by a fire caused by a butter lamp. Luckily, the main statues were not severely damaged and other relics were saved before any harm was done.
Recently the Paga Lhakhang, which was more than 300 years old structure succumbed to fire. The fire was suspected to have started because of short circuit. Although the important artifacts, statues and religious scripts were saved and recovered, the originality of the 300 old structure was completely lost.
Lately the Wangdue Dzong which stood for 374 years was lost to a fire disaster. We have heard that the findings of the investigation into the fire blame electric short circuit. Investigation into all major fire disasters in the country in recent years has yielded the same result. The burning down of the ancient Dzong is a huge national loss.
These are the grim reminders of preventable fire disasters in our country. There are many more similar stories that are untold and un-noticed, be it major or minor. Having seen or heard of such fire disasters, it should be our human endeavor to safeguard age old heritage sites from such man-made catastrophes.
Whenever there is a fire, the government issues a circular to all executive bodies such as ministries and Dzongkhags to be vigilant and prevent Dzong and lhakhang from fire disasters in their respective places. For instance, the circular reaches to the Dzongkhag and Dzongda who passes the circular to the Dzongrab. Further the Dzongrab directs the Administrative Officer to abide by the government order. Ultimately the order reaches to Elementary Service Personnel (ESP) and General Service Personnel (GSP). Finally when it reaches the low level staff, the essence of the circular is lost and thus remains inoperative. There is a phenomenal flaw in our system for preventing or managing disasters. In Bhutan Times, Lyonpo Minjur Dorji said that Dzongs are still vulnerable to such accidents and need expertise from outside to find ways to save them. It is good to know that the government is taking initiatives to overcome future fire disaster but when will these things materialize, next year or may be another year.
However strong and fire resilient structures may be, the people guarding and securing Dzongs around the country will remain the same and the same old fate will befall those structures. In the present scenario, the Dzongs are provided with basic fire-fighting equipment which have expired dates. Nobody takes responsibility to inspect and refill cartridges which remain there just for show. Similarly, as per procurement rules, the contract should be awarded to the lowest bidder for any government or developmental works. When electrical fitting in such historically important Dzongs and temples are awarded to the lowest bidder, the quality of electrical parts is compromised and thus the electrical short circuit comes into picture. Therefore, whenever there is a fire disaster, the investigation yields the same result which is a short circuit.
There are many new technologies which can blend with old structures to protect it. Although changing the whole structure is impossible, there are always scientific incorporations that can be made to old structures. All historical Dzongs should be fitted with smoke detectors and fire alarm system like Trongsa Dzong. These are basic installations that will save massive and priceless structures and benefit our national economy at large.
In Dzongkhags or elsewhere in the city, there is no fire hydrant laid within or at the periphery of the town. This indicates that concerned authorities are not taking into account the fire security system at the planning stage itself. There is no mainstreaming of fire safety in Local Area Plans. At present, we are fully dependent on fire brigade or water tankers for any fire accidents, be it forest or structures. It consumes a lot of time while refilling empty tanks during a fire disaster. By the time that a tankers returns with full water the fire would have already razed a few acres of forest or the whole structure. These are minor evidences but prominent in local communities or Dzongkhags. In order to have good fire security coordination, the government needs to establish a separate fire security department and it should be spread out to Dzongkhags and other important institutions. All fire fighters should be well trained to prevent and/or manage disaster and disseminate such professional knowledge to the general public especially the staff working in Dzongkhags and ministries.
Through this article, I would like to urge all concerned authorities to consider mainstreaming fire security in the planning stage and implement it accordingly. This will not only help reduce fire disaster but also decrease dependency on foreign aid for preserving our monuments and temples. For those monuments, my suggestion would be, to install modern fire security systems wherever possible and employ dedicated staff. If not, a new unit should be established in all historical Dzongs and temples.
Jamba Tsheten, Dzongrab, Haa Dzongkhag